A few months ago, my dad sent me the following email:
Here is something I thought you would be interested in that we saw in Key West. It was part of the early evening entertainment going on around sunset. Once you have trained your cats to do this I will send you a photo of the next trick!
This photo is, of course, of a cat jumping over a man’s arm from one stool to the other. Apparently, the man in the photo is known in Key West for his performing cats who can not only jump over arms, but through hoops, flaming hoops, etc. (You can also find footage of these performances on Youtube. I’m not a fan of everything he does with the cats, so I won’t post any of the videos here.)
Regardless, I have always secretly wanted to teach my cats how to jump through a hoop. Not because it serves any particular practical purpose (other than showing off at parties) but because cats are fun to train and, certainly with my own three cats, they like to train. Smirnoff was the first of my cats to be “taught” anything: a basic “sit”. And for some reason, “lay down” and “rollover” were easy additions for him; probably because he already did those things often, and all I had to do was mark those behaviors until he could do them on command. I teach all three of my cats tricks, provided they want to, of course. Bacardi can’t get “lay down” because he’s too focused on the food, and Warlow does a perfect “lay down” but can’t rollover. However, he does an adorable “high-five”.
I’ve done training with dogs at various shelters, and dogs are a lot of fun too. I had a really great time teaching a dog, Zailey, a whole bunch of things. But time and time again, I return to cats. I think it’s because training cats requires more thinking and problem-solving on my part. Cats aren’t going to do something just to please us humans; there has to be something in it for them. (Usually, food.) Thus, training becomes a mental exercise for both myself and my cats.
So how do I choose what to train? Well, just like with any animal, you have to play into their natural behaviors and things that can realistically be taught. Teaching a cat to jump through a hoop is not an absurd concept because guess what? Cats love to leap!
But there is a difference between teaching a dog to jump through a hoop and a cat, as was explained to me by the trainer at my shelter. She said that for dogs, you teach them that the hoop is an object through which they should jump. You start by having the dog walk through the hoop, then raise it higher and higher until they are jumping. After a while, you can switch up the location of the hoop, the angle of it, move it from side to side and it doesn’t matter. The dog knows that the hoop is what it’s supposed to target. For cats, however, the primary technique used is to teach a cat to jump consistently from point A to point B, whether those points are stools, or (in my case) the top of a scratching post and the end of a desk. Once the cat can do that, you can add any object in between—a hoop, an arm, etc. The in-between doesn’t matter at all. The cat knows it should jump from point A to point B no matter what is in the way.
It was surprisingly easy to teach all three cats this trick. Smirnoff is the best at it, which is no surprise since he’s the best leaper in general. (I’ve seen him jump from a table to the top of a fridge, onto the top of the shower door… or really any door, and he’s always figuring out how high he can get and why the ceiling keeps getting in the way.) Warlow isn’t far behind. Despite his tiny stature, he can leap just as far as Smirnoff. Bacardi, on the other hand, is a tad awkward… but to make up for it, he can do a very clean “sit up” at the end!
Here’s a video of one of Smirnoff’s *early* attempts:
I train my cats because it’s a way for us to spend quality time together (between all the snuggling and playtime, of course!) and because they are developing self-control, problem-solving skills, and get a good mental exercise from it. To me, it doesn’t matter that cats don’t jump through hoops or give high-fives out in nature… just as long as any type of training we do, first and foremost, benefits the cat. And when, during a training session, Warlow starts his loud, deep purr… or when Smirnoff meows for another trick… well, I know they’re having as much fun as I am!
This year, I am attempting to keep a training log to keep track of how much time I’m spending working with my cats (and to remind myself when it’s been way too long since we practiced!). Hopefully, this will help enrich my cats’ lives and make them happy indoor felines.
To find out more about training your cats, here are some good resources to get started:
Karen Pryor clicker training
ASPCA on cat training
Dr. Sophia Yin on teaching cats to sit